The Legacy of Don James - Part one

Among the imperatives of former Husky coach Don James, this saying represented his greatest legacy to a program now (temporarily) incapable of achieving it. "Keeping hope alive" meant positioning the team for a November run at the conference championship. James did that as well as any coach in the country.

Even his first Washington team, which needed an Al Burleson/Spider Gaines miracle in the last three minutes against Washington State just to finish with a winning record, was in the Pac-8 race in November.

His third team, in 1977, won the last Pac-8 title. His next nine teams were all in the race of the newly minted Pac-10 into November. Just four times in 18 years – 1976 and 1987-89 - his teams failed to keep hope alive into November.

The hope didn't die after James quit. Three of the four Jim Lambright teams not on probation kept the hope alive into the season's final month (before teams started playing those silly December games). Three of four Rick Neuheisel teams could say the same thing. As a result of this consistency, the Huskies posted the best conference and overall marks in the Pac-10 in both the 1980s and 1990s.

Is it any wonder UW fans are poised over the panic button because the last two teams were dead in the water in October? From 1977 through 2001, 25 seasons, Novembers held title hopes for Washington 18 times in 23 non-probation years.

James' teams were so good at KHA that a mere one game each season, usually one specific game, separated Washington from 10 straight conference titles from 1977 through 1986. Such was the monster of expectations James had created, he feared he could lose his job after the 1988 season, a second consecutive non-KHA, if he didn't turn it around quickly.

For those who might doubt the aforementioned statistics, here's a rundown:

1977 - Conference title and Rose Bowl victory over Michigan.

1978 - Despite a season- and conference-opening loss to UCLA, the Huskies rattled off five straight Pac-10 wins before losing to fifth-rated USC in Los Angeles 28-10 in the next-to-last game of the season. Had the UW won, it would have claimed the Rose Bowl berth assuming a win the following week over Washington State, which the Huskies defeated 38-8.

1979 - Washington, ranked 15th, and USC, fourth, met again in the next-to-last game, both with undefeated conference records (Washington thanks to a forfeit win over Arizona State). The Trojans, led by Ronnie Lott and the eventual Heisman Trophy winner, Charles White, prevailed 31-24 in a memorable, winner-take-the-Pac-10 game.

1980 - UW won "Pac-5" title (five teams, including both L.A. schools, were on probation) and lost to Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

1981 - Huskies beat WSU 23-10 in the finale to claim the title in an unbelievable four-team race, and then defeated Iowa in the Rose Bowl.

1982 - Washington appeared Rose Bowl-bound until losing to a 2-7-1 Washington State team 24-20 in Pullman. It wouldn't have mattered if the UW had survived a John Elway-led Stanford team earlier when the Cardinal was supposedly undermanned.

1983 - It was 1982, part two, but this Cougar team was on a five-game winning streak after starting 1-4. WSU made it six straight with a 17-6 victory. The loss wouldn't have mattered if the Huskies had survived a Rick Neuheisel-led UCLA team that most definitely wasn't undermanned. Neuheisel completed 25 of 27 passes against Washington in a 27-24 victory, setting and NCAA record for accuracy that stood until a few years ago.

1984 - UW was 9-0 and No. 1-ranked before losing to USC 16-7 in Los Angeles, giving the Trojans the Pac-10 title. After beating WSU 38-29 the following week, the Huskies settled for a "consolation" prize in the Orange Bowl. Washington beat second-ranked Oklahoma 28-17 and wound up ranked behind only undefeated BYU.

1985 - Cursed by a No. 1 ranking from Sports Illustrated, the UW lost its first two games, to Oklahoma State 31-17 and BYU 31-3, then fell to perennial bottom feeder Oregon State 21-20 as a 38-point favorite - AND STILL HAD CONFERENCE TITLE HOPES going in to November. But the Huskies lost to Arizona State 36-7 and Washington State 21-20. Had Washington won the ASU game, it would have gone to Pasadena, even with the loss to the Cougars.

1986 - Despite a conference-opening loss in Los Angeles to a poor USC team 20-10 (after eye-popping victories over Ohio State, 40-7, and BYU, 52-21), the sixth-rated Huskies took title hopes to Arizona State Nov. 1 and lost to the eventual Rose Bowl champs 34-21.

Part II: James finally has down years before a huge revival, and Lambright and Neuheisel continue the KHA tradition.

Richard Rambeck is a freelance writer and former sportswriter. Top Stories